Most hunters that grew up in the Miss/Lou during my era cut their hunting teeth in one of three ways — sneaking up on a squirrel cutting acorns in the top of a tall red oak, following a pack of bawling beagles in hot pursuit of an elusive cottontail, or flushing an exploding covey of bobwhite quail in front of a fine bird dog frozen solid on point. A few of us older guys can even recall walking up our fair share of snipe and woodcock. And, no, our snipe hunts did not involve a flashlight or a gunnysack.
It wasn’t until the deer and wild turkey populations began to explode in the 1970s that our attention was diverted to these new, and seemingly more exciting, big game pursuits. And while chasing whitetails and longbeards has become a passion for us, some of our fondest memories and most educational experiences took place while hunting small game.
Let’s take a closer look at a few of the small game species found in the Miss/Lou area. While we’re at it, we’ll talk with the small game experts in Mississippi and Louisiana about the opportunities available to small game hunters in this region.
Mississippi and Louisiana are both home to two species of rabbits: eastern cottontails and swamp rabbits. The cottontail is considered more of an upland species, while the swamp rabbit is seen as a wooded wetland species. However, both species of rabbits can be found interspersed across the Miss/Lou. According to Rick Hamrick, Small Game Program Leader with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the presence and abundance of rabbits in any area varies depending on habitat quality and quantity.
“While cottontails can be found in both upland and lowland areas, swamp rabbits are typically found around wetlands, rivers, creeks, and other lowland areas,” noted Hamrick. “Both species require an abundant mix of upright grass cover, broadleaf plants, and brushy thickets.”
Much like the bobwhite quail — but not nearly as severe — rabbit numbers have declined across the Miss/Lou over the last 50 years. These declining rabbit populations have been primarily the result of changes in land use and management.
The vast majority of Deep South bunny hunters prefer the thrill of watching a brace or more of beagles bawling after a fleeing rabbit. Due to the dense cover predominant in the Miss/Lou, running dogs is by far the more productive rabbit hunting method.
For a few rabbit hunting pointers we turned to Matt Walker, a former graduate research assistant and die-hard rabbit hunter that conducted rabbit research at Mississippi State University. According to Walker, the most obvious requirement for a successful rabbit hunt is to locate the rabbits.
“Cottontails prefer brushy cover for protection in upland agricultural fields and grasslands, and reach their highest populations in areas that provide a patchwork of several usable habitat types,” said Walker. “As their name implies, swamp rabbits are associated with wet areas, preferring moist lowlands and brushy cover along streams and ditch banks.”
Walker also stressed the importance of wearing briar pants to protect you from the various types of thorns you are certain to encounter in the thickets where rabbits are found. And don’t forget to put on as much hunter orange as possible so you can be visible to other hunters in the dense cover.
“One of the most overlooked secrets of rabbit hunting is scouting,” Walker added. “Cottontail rabbits are highly active at dawn and dusk and this is usually when most rabbits can be seen. Pay close attention to where and how the rabbits flee, because these escape routes are used repeatedly and may be useful in the future.”
Making sure you are equipped with the right hunting gear is also important. Walker recommends a shotgun with an improved cylinder choke and No. 6 or 7 1/2 shot when hunting rabbits in thick cover. Because of limited shot distance in thick cover, quick shots at close range are the norm and a wide pattern with heavy shot is beneficial.
Walker also noted that some hunters prefer to use a modified or full choke when hunting with dogs, to prevent stray shot from striking a dog hot on the rabbit’s trail. In addition, a tighter choke with heavier shot, such as No. 4, will allow for longer shots.
Most rabbit hunters recognize that weather conditions have a dramatic effect on the success of the hunt. According to Walker, cold and damp days are the best for rabbit hunting. Seeking shelter from the cold and the wind, rabbits will hole up in locations with easy access to open areas where they can quickly warm up in the sunshine.
Strong winds cause rabbits to limit their movement and make them harder to locate. And dry conditions make it extremely difficult for the dogs to detect the scent of a rabbit, usually resulting in fewer rabbits in the bag at the end of the day.
“The most common mistake made by rabbit hunters can be easily corrected,” said Walker. “Slow Down!”
Walker believes hunters and their dogs both think that covering more ground increases hunting success. However, hunting too fast will often result in missing rabbits that are holding tight to their hiding spots. Walker suggests that hunters move slowly and perform a more thorough search of the area in order to flush those hard to find rabbits.
While there are a number of public lands that are open to rabbit hunting in Mississippi and Louisiana, including wildlife management areas, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands, good rabbit hunting can be spotty. Small game biologists from both states suggest focusing on locations that are actively being managed for small game.
In Louisiana, some of the better rabbit hunting opportunities can be found on the Jackson/Bienville, Ouachita, Ben’s Creek, Union, and Pearl River WMAs.
In the Magnolia State, the WMAs being managed with an emphasis on small game are Black Prairie, Charles Ray Nix, Hell Creek, Lake George, Trim Cane, and Nanih Waiya.
And don’t forget to inquire about hunting on nearby private property. The same landowners that readily slam the door in your face when asking for deer or turkey hunting access sometimes welcome rabbit and other small game hunters onto their property. This is primarily due to the fact that most landowners don’t view small game hunting as a moneymaking venture the same way they do deer and turkey hunting.
Just as with rabbits, the Miss/Lou is home to two species of squirrels: the eastern gray squirrel and the eastern fox squirrel. However, there are two subspecies of gray squirrels and three subspecies of fox squirrels. In addition, there are melanistic black color phases in each species.
While both species are abundant throughout the region, gray squirrels are the most widely distributed and the most numerous. Even though squirrels are by far the most prevalent small game species in the Miss/Lou, their populations often fluctuate from year to year in response to the availability of mast crops of acorns, pine seed, berries, and fruits.
According to Dave Godwin, MDWFP Small Game/Turkey Program Coordinator, and his counterpart in Louisiana, Jimmy Stafford, Mississippi and Louisiana both offer first class squirrel hunting opportunities.
“Practically all areas offer squirrel hunting opportunities,” said Godwin. “Hunters seeking gray squirrels, or fox squirrels in the Delta region, will find the best hunting in areas with large amounts of hardwood forestland. Those in search of the upland fox squirrels will likely find better hunting in areas with pine and upland hardwood forests that have an open structure.”
According to these biologists, small game hunting pressure is low to moderate on most public lands. After opening day of the season, squirrel hunting pressure drops drastically. Once you get about a week into the season, it’s easy to find an area on most any public land that is void of other squirrel hunters.
With an abundance of public land squirrel hunting opportunities available and healthy bushytail populations throughout the region, finding a prime squirrel hunting spot is literally as simple as stepping out your back door.
In Louisiana, some of the better squirrel hunting WMAs that contain good stands of hardwood forests are Big Lake, Dewey Wills, Sherburne, Red River, Three Rivers, and Russell Sage.
In Mississippi, there really isn’t a bad WMA when it comes to squirrel hunting opportunities. According to the veteran squirrel hunters I spoke with, Noxubee and Panther Swamp NWRs are absolutely phenomenal squirrel hunting locations in the Magnolia State.
Unlike rabbit hunters that depend on dogs almost exclusively to bag a few bunnies, squirrel hunters are split down the middle when it comes to their hunting method of choice. About half of the squirrel hunters in the Miss/Lou depend on stealth and their trusty .22-caliber rifles, while the rest take to the woods with a treeing squirrel dog to help them locate a limit of bushytails. Both methods can be equally productive, especially with a high squirrel population. Still-hunting squirrels is more of solo type of hunting, while hunting with a squirrel dog allows for a larger group of hunters to join in on the fun.
This brings us to the less popular of the small game species. While they may not get the same participation or have as high a population as squirrels or rabbits, quail, snipe and woodcock certainly have their enthusiasts.
According to the most recent data available, quail populations in Louisiana have declined by approximately 75 percent since 1967. This trend holds true across the southeastern U.S., where it is estimated they have declined by about 60 percent. Agencies and organizations are currently working together in a coordinated effort to restore the ecosystems and habitat necessary to sustain the bobwhite quail.
Woodcock and snipe populations have also been on the decline, although not as drastic as has been seen in the bobwhite quail. The declining woodcock population is thought to be due primarily to the loss of early successional habitat in the northern breeding ground states. However, because Mississippi and Louisiana are at the end of the flyway, this population decline is not always evident. Wintering woodcock populations are influenced primarily by weather, and the Miss/Lou area usually has high numbers of wintering woodcock during cold, wet winters.
According to Stafford, the top woodcock WMAs in Louisiana are Sherburne, Red River, Three Rivers, and Sandy Hollow. When it comes to snipe, he suggests the coastal areas of Pearl River and Manchac WMAs, along with portions of Sherburne and Ouachita WMAs.
In Mississippi, Godwin indicated that both species are more scattered across the state. However, during a late winter drawdown, good snipe hunting can be found along the edges of Enid and Grenada lakes in the north of the state.